A Woman for All Seasons: An Interview with Françoise Sullivan

In 1948 Françoise Sullivan, who was 23 years old, set out with Jean-Paul Riopelle and Maurice Perron to perform and document a dance in the snow-covered landscape around Mont-St-Hilaire, Quebec. It was a unique artistic event, a dance that duplicated in body movement what Sullivan understood as the principles of gestural movement that were central to psychic automatism. Called Danse dans la niege (Dance in the Snow), it stands today as one of the singularly most important pieces of performance in the history of Canadian art. We know it from the remarkable photographs Perron took (the film footage shot by Riopelle has been lost). The Winter segment was the second of four improvisations the young choreographer had planned to do (she had already performed Summer). Significantly, Sullivan did complete her seasonal cycle in 2007 when her reworked choreography for all four seasons was filmed by Mario Côté and released as Les Saisons Sullivan.

Françoise Sullivan's recollection of *Danse dans la neige* is as clear as the air on the 28th day of February, almost six decades ago, when she performed it. She remembers that "the entire countryside seemed to whisper" and her gestures became evocative of what she understood as a "Northern melancholy. I was just dancing with my feeling of the landscape. I let the rhythms flow. I perceived the space of day--cut it and shaped it." Her description of space is as much painterly and sculptural as it is kinetic, a slippage that should surprise no one. Sullivan's lengthy and accomplished life in art has been an intersecting web of movement from one art form to another. She has distinguished herself as a dancer, choreographer, sculptor, performance and conceptual artist and, above all, as a painter.   

In her practice she has searched for and affirmed the authenticity of art making in whatever art form she was engaged, and in whatever set of circumstances she found herself. After her marriage to the painter Paterson Ewen, and the birth of four sons, she found it impossible to commit to the daily regime demanded by dance, or to a satisfying studio practice. But within two years she began to make assembled steel sculpture. Sullivan has demonstrated a passionate and indefatigable will to make art throughout her career.  

*BORDER CROSSINGS: Was yours the sort of household where you would have been encouraged to be interested in the arts?
*
FRANÇOISE SULLIVAN: My brothers were interested in sports, and I was much younger than they were. My father loved poetry and what he loved best was giving a speech in which he would recite some poetry. He was good at it. Sometimes he wrote his own poetry, and he wrote a poem for me when I was a little girl and it was very like Victor Hugo. He had charisma and I adored him. My neighbour, whose little girl I played with from my earliest time, was a violin teacher who made his own violins as well and is still known as a special teacher. I think he might have come from Winnipeg. His name was Camille Couture. I heard a lot about art and great musicians when I went to their house. So I grew up with people talking about art; it wasn’t foreign to me.

BC: But you seemed very precocious. Didn’t you start dance lessons very early on?

**FS: **That was my mother’s idea. I was eight years old and it wasn’t so common in those days. I took ballet lessons and there were always performances at the end of the year in which I participated. I also took theatre lessons from Camille Bernard, who had the Théâtre de petit. I used to teach my friends to dance on the street. I was making little plays. It was a game. I guess I felt art inside me and I felt it right away. I decided I would be a painter when I was nine.

BC: Even though dance was your love, you actually made the determination inside your own head to be a painter?

**FS: **Yes. But then later I left painting for a while to go to New York. I felt I had nothing more to learn here in the direction of dance. I went in 1944 and spent two years there.

Buy issue #106 to read the full interview!

Volume 27, Number 2: Ed Ruscha

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #106, published May 2008.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.